I recently read an article by a well-meaning pastor making the case men and women can never be true friends because sex will always get in the way. It didn’t have to be actual sexual contact, he said, but desire would prove sufficient: one party would inevitably want to be something more than friends since the friendship probably began with such a goal in mind for at least one of the pair. A platonic relationship between a man and a woman was simply impossible, he concluded.
There are many reasons I disagree with that conclusion. Let’s face it: he’s making some broad fundamental assumptions whether he realizes it or not. First, to our modern sensibilities, the conclusion comes across as heteronormative; it fails to consider friendship between a lesbian and a gay man, an (admittedly) extreme case in which sexual desire for the other would exist on the part of neither. Next, it takes a rather reductionistic view of human relationships and identity which is both insulting and silly. If friendship is based on a semblance of sexuality, why only mention it in the case of man-woman friendships? Since it assumes human beings are sexual beings (we are) who only reach out to others in sexual ways (we don’t), the obvious extension of that logic is to conclude men befriend men and women befriend women in part because of a mutual sexual attraction. We all know that to be false. We are creatures of wide and varied interests; not all attraction need be sexual in origin or expression. There is more to a human being than sexuality; ergo, there is more to a friendship (and love) than sex. Still, the conclusion drawn by the pastor’s logic would have you believe otherwise.
One thing he gets right, though, is that friendships involve intimacy. Where he immediately goes wrong is in defining intimacy as purely sexual in nature. I think sometime in the last century or so we’ve lost a true feel for what it means to be intimate with someone. It’s a closeness, a vulnerability, a freedom of self and authenticity. If I am intimate with someone, I share my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, aspirations. And I need not share my body to share my soul, even in an age when so many share their bodies without ever baring their souls. There is a confusion there, a sense of misplaced priorities, I think. In our hook-up culture, so very many engage in “no strings attached” sex precisely because they believe they don’t have to be naked in soul to be naked in body. In a way, I suppose, we’ve redefined sex to include physical intimacy only and then assumed that’s the only kind of intimacy there is since it’s the only type present during sex.
Wheels within wheels . . .
At any rate, things didn’t used to be this way. We used to understand intimacy as a soul thing, and that’s why we claimed to be intimate with our friends as well as our lovers. Our friends, our closest companions, the family we choose for ourselves, are entitled to know our hearts — and so they do. Most of our friendships are based on a sense of commonality of soul: shared interests, shared experiences, shared dreams. But such intimacy costs something; vulnerability is not without risk. That’s one reason we used to make a sharp distinction between friends and acquaintances, between buddies and peers. Our friends saw our souls; we were intimate. We were cordial to our acquaintances, but they never knew our innermost workings; we weren’t intimate.
Now, of course, we’ve redefined “friend” as well. At present, I have 405 Facebook friends. Of those, the overwhelming majority aren’t truly friends but acquaintances — and sometimes rather distant acquaintances at that. Those people don’t know my favorite movie, how I take my tea, my dating woes, or why it’s rare for me to actually sound like I’m from Appalachia when I talk unless I make an effort to do so. My history is a mystery, my heart inscrutable, and my personal habits enigmatic if not just outright unknown. Nevertheless, an entire generation are now teenagers who have never lived in a world without Facebook or other social media. Most of their friendships exist on this shallow level, technological constructions carefully cultivated to avoid presenting anything negative or less-than. But aren’t friends there for the bad times, too? Loss, doubt, fear, confusion, illness — aren’t friends for such times as these? Not if we are never intimate with them; they’d never know they were required.
To get back to the article, the author recognized friendships require intimacy of a sort. And I grant you that emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy should be a precursor to physical intimacy — and sometimes it can create a desire for sexual intimacy. But it needn’t do so. I can selectively bare my soul to those whom I consider friends without reducing any of us to purely sexual beings. So it is I am friends with both men and women with no desire on either side for it to be anything more.
I invite you to reclaim a robust definition of intimacy. Snatch friendship from the Internet and make it truly personal again. Rise above reductionistic takes on our identity. And show the right people the real you: bare your soul and be known.